Of Death and Grief
In 2016, Ghanaian born writer Yaa Gyasi made a stunning literary debut. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a breathtaking chronicle of the history of two sisters born in the author’s native Ghana. It was widely acclaimed, both by literary pundits and by the general reading public alike, and has earned her several awards and nominations from various literary award-giving bodies. The world of literature unrolled its proverbial red carpet for Gyasi’s grand entrance. This also marked the ascent of a new and excitable voice in the world of literature. Four years thence, she made her literary comeback with Transcendent Kingdom.
Recently announced as one of the shortlisted novels gunning for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Transcendent Kingdom charts the story of Gifty. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, she was introduced to the readers as a precocious 28-year-old young woman currently completing her PhD in Neuroscience at Stanford University. Her PhD study centers around the “neural circuits of reward-seeking behaviour” in mice. The study is aimed at identifying which neurons are “firing or are not firing.” Gifty’s life and studies were disrupted with the sudden surprising appearance of her mother who was again sinking into depression.
Mother and daughter has always had a stormy relationship. The unwelcome visitor not only disrupted the natural flow of Gifty’s life but she also ushered in the recollection of bitter and, at times, traumatic memories, memories of childhood that she would rather not relive. The past, however, was something that Gifty cannot simply walk away from. She might have physically separated herself from the home of her childhood and youth, moving from Alabama to Stanford, the ghosts of the past will always find its way to her. As her memories are triggered, she gradually surmised that in order for her to make peace with the present, she must confront the ghosts of her childhood.
“The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That’s science, but that’s also everything else, isn’t it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions.”~ Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom was related chiefly through the experience of an individual. However, as one devours the pages, one learns that it is a multifaceted novel wrapped up in several layers. The novel explored the complexities and the dynamics of family life through this family of four and their experiences in Deep South America. The first layer that prevailed above the narrative is the story of a family whose story began in Kumasi, Ghana. Compared to most, Gifty’s parents met and married late. They first had a son they named Nana. Both parents adored their brilliant first born who excelled in both academics and athletics. Gifty was born later and was an unwanted pregnancy.
The novel also explored the quintessence of the American Dream and the immigrant narrative. Not long after Nana’s birth, the matriarch moved to Huntsville, Alabama in search of the proverbial greener pastures. She wanted to give her son a better life. However, assimilation in a new society is rarely every achieved. Pursuing that American Dream is easier said than done for it also entails having to deal and endure racism and discrimination that has long been prevalent. To earn a living for her family, Gifty’s mother took on menial jobs before settling for a caretaker job to abusive elderly patients. When Chin-chin man, the nickname for the family’s patriarch, joined his family, he was also left with no choice but to take on unstable jobs with paltry pay.
Things turned further south when Chin-chin man, never able to adjust to Alabama, returned to Ghana, virtually abandoning his family. The story also started to diverge as it took on a score of other subjects and themes. Gyasi subtly underscored the impact of substance addiction, in particular opioid addiction, on both personal and family dynamics. This exploration of addiction is timely seminal for it is a reference to recent spurt of opioid addiction that has gripped the United States. Like a domino effect, addiction led to overdose, and the overdose to death. The offshoot of death was grief. Addiction, death and grief were seminal theme upon which several actions nd decision of the primary characters were anchored on.
Of the three, death was the most prevalent subject for it is one of the universal realities in our lives. We all live an existence that perpetually intersects and brushes with its various forms. Despite its inevitability, death leaves a bitter aftertaste in the living. It leaves a scar, a gaping hole that can, at times, take years to heal. Only with the passage of times does the pain start to become tolerable. Still, the wound leaves a mark. In this spirit, grief and sorrow have both become synonymous with death. Because of their universality, these are subjects that have become ubiquitous in the vast corpus of literature. From children’s book like Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, to award-winning works such as Ann Enright’s The Gathering, the example of novels dealing with this heavy subject is endless. Transcendent Kingdom is an addition to this growing list of works.
“Whenever I listened to his friends speak about issues like prison reform, climate change, the opioid epidemic, in the simultaneously intelligent but utterly vacuous way of people who think it’s important simply to weigh in, to have an opinion, I would bristle. I would think, What is the point of all of this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?”~ Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
In terms of grief, everyone has his or her own unique coping mechanism. Some move on quickly, choosing to live in the present and in the future rather than in the past but there are some that are inevitably altered by the experience. Death has rocked Gifty’s family and created a greater rift between her and her mother. Those who unable to find other means to redirect their grief are slowly swallowed by depression or chronic sadness. Mental health was a seminal theme embedded into the narrative, which was also manifested through suicidal attempts and anxieties. Gifty’s chief motivation in pursuing neuroscience was her brother’s addiction and eventual death. In studying reward seeking behavior, she was also hoping to find answers to her mother’s behavior.
On a more universal scale, the novel is an insightful discourse into complicated relationships, not just within the household, but also between faith and science. Gifty’s mother was religious and she bequeathed this religiosity to her daughter who had fond memories of attending the local Pentecostal church of Huntsville. Gifty once ruminated: “And though I hadn’t worked out how I felt about the Christianity of my childhood, I did know how I felt about my mother. Her devotion, her faith, they moved me. I was protective of her right to find comfort in whatever way she saw fit. Didn’t she deserve at least that much? We have to go through this life somehow.”
Due to the traumas of her experiences as a child, Gifty turned to science. As a consequence, she slowly pushed religion aside. She was in want of conclusive answers and it was her stern belief that science will provide her the answers she has long been seeking for. The repeated discussions between science and religion is critical in understanding the narrative. The discourse on science versus religion was rarely heavy nor intellectual. Careening towards the philosophical, Gyasi grounded the discussion, viewing it through the lens of a young woman ruminating on her childhood experiences and how it has influenced her present live.
One of the novel’s better facets is Gifty. She is a complex character and her characterization was on-point. She portrayed inclinations for meanness and spite but she could also be caring, and tender. She tries to project a veneer of strength and independence but she also craves affection. She can be impenetrable at times as she has built a wall around herself. But the more important dimension of her character is her fervent desire to seek answers to questions that have long hounded her. She grows and matures while finding herself, recovering bits and pieces of the past that has been chipped away by trauma. She is a fully realized character upon which the narrative was anchored on.
“Most of the time in my work, I begin with the answers, with an idea of the results. I suspect that something is true and then I work toward that suspicion, experimenting, tinkering, until I find what I am looking for. The ending, the answer, is never the hard part. The hard part is trying to figure out what the question is, trying to ask something interesting enough, different enough from what has already been asked, trying to make it all matter.”~ Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
Gyasi did very well in crafting the story of Gifty and her tumultuous childhood that it took some time for the flaws to surface. Gyasi proved herself masterful in painting the profile of people and their stories but despite Gifty’s ruminations on seminal themes such as life, death, and the dynamics of family life, the narrative came across a little too loose. It was amorphous, meandered and continuously weaved in and out of time, at times bereft of transition. Gifty’s frenzied mind made it a challenge, at times, relating to her. The exploration of some of the novel’s critical themes were also, at times, haphazard, especially when religion became the focal point of the discussion. The novel explored many subjects but there was an inconsistency in the exploration of these subjects. Some were not fully realized, barely coming full circle, making their impact ephemeral at best.
Despite its flaws, Transcendent Kingdom was a riveting story if for Gifty alone. Gifty was an interesting protagonist that gave life to the multifaceted novel. It was a novel about our past, about our experiences, and how these experiences influence our present. Gifty’s story was about confronting the ghosts of the past in order to find ourselves. It bravely confronts uncomfortable subjects but it ultimately suffered on the weight of its ambitions. Whilst we cannot begrudge Transcendent Kingdom its ambitiousness, one can’t help but wish that the narrative was a little tighter. It had all the ingredients for a powerful narrative but there was just something missing to piece it all together.
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%
During my February 2020 Asian Literature month (my first ever), one of the standouts was Ghanaian writer Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It was a book, admittedly, that I avoided at first because of the hype surrounding it; I always find myself holding back on most hyped up books for some reason. Despite my initial apprehension, I ended up loving the historical context woven into the narrative of Homegoing. It earned Yaa Gyasi an admirer in me and when I learned that she was releasing a new work four years after her successful debut, I was excited, although a little apprehensive again because I felt like Transcendent Kingdom is a step away from Homegoing. I was proven right and I, admittedly, tried to find vestiges of Homegoing in Gyasi’s second novel. This made appreciating Transcendent Kingdom a little bit difficult but once I got over my Homegoing fever, I started to understand the merits of the former. The subject still flustered me but I still found Transcendent Kingdom a meditative read about the complicated relationships we build with our parents, the complexities of the immigrant experience, the aftershocks of sudden death, and the role of religion in our lives. For a rather slim novel, it was ambitious in its intent although a little flat in its execution.
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 264
Genre: Psychological Fiction, Domestic Fiction
Yaa Gyasi’s stunning follow-up to her everywhere-acclaimed novel Homegoing (“Spectacular” – Zadie Smith; “An inspiration” – Ta-Nehisi Coates) is a novel about a Ghanaian family in the contemporary South, at once a profound story about race in America and an astonishingly intimate portrait of a young woman reckoning, spiritually and intellectually, with a legacy of unmanageable loss.
Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s losses, she finds herself hungering her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised.
Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief – a novel about faith, science, religion, love, undertaken with effortless command and raw emotion, in language that soars.
About the Author
To learn more about Yaa Gyasi, click here.
Thanks for a great review, Carl. I started this book but couldn’t get into it. Perhaps I’ll give it another go.
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Oh wow Carl, this is a really great review! I really like your musings about the exploration of death and grief in Transcendent Kingdom. You spoke to some of the things I couldn’t quite articulate about the novel. I thought the beginning of the novel dragged on a bit, as we were introduced to this family and their story. But I loved all the musings about religion though (perhaps because I’m a religious person myself and I’ve asked a lot of the same questions that Gifty was working through). I see why it could hinder the narrative for some. I also think that the discussion of the opioid crisis is very timely especially as overdose-related deaths are rising due to the pandemic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Carl! I hope you’re having a great day 🙂
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Thank you for your kind words 🙂 I hope you have a great day as well!
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I am reading more African writers this year, but I’m afraid YG’s novel wasn’t for me. I abandoned it after about 50 pages. At that point, the unremitting misery of all concerned, did not appeal to me.
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